I Still Hear It…

Richard Skinner

A quick update — Sarah Hoyt has since posted her own appreciation of Jerry. Read it at PJ Media. We obviously knew the same man — but she knew him far better than I.


Jerry Pournelle, 2005 NASFICA giant left our vale of tears yesterday. Yet — I still hear a booming voice, echoing from the mountainsides, ringing about the hills, reverberating through my head…

Last night, I cracked open a book. That is certainly nothing new, but I had the need at the time for something that would engage my mind. But only for short periods of time: I really should be doing other things than absorbing myself in a novel, or, even worse, a series.

The book that I pulled from the shelf — an anthology of short science fiction stories, non-fiction articles, and interspersed commentary and essays by the editor — is getting rather worn these days; the pages are yellowed and it’s about time to tape the front cover back on.

Despite a complete lack of psychic powers, though, this book, The Endless Frontier (Volume II), was the best book I could possibly have selected. Because, following my usual morning habit, I popped open Sarah Hoyt’s blog, According to Hoyt, only to see a note above the scheduled article — a note that Jerry Pournelle, that editor, had passed yesterday.

I had to close the browser, after posting a rather incoherent comment (maybe the first reaction there, I haven’t looked back yet to see). Continued with my life; there were bill payments to get out, an errand to pick up a couple quarts of motor oil and see if the grocery store had any lettuce this morning. That voice in the back of my head, though — call it the Muse, or whatever — began composing. I had to think about what this meant, and I had to get it written. Now, today.

So, an entirely unplanned blog post. Please bear with me, although I think I am somewhat more coherent after a few hours of absorbing the shock.

Now, without a doubt, there will be hundreds — thousands — tens of thousands of words written in the next few days about what Jerry meant to the several communities in which he was so prominent a figure. The science fiction community, of course. But also the space exploration community. The personal computer community. The educational reform community. The national defense community, the political community … Jerry was a true Renaissance man in the modern age; anything that caught his interest was soon mastered, and then shared with the rest of us.

In all of those communities, there are people who can and will tell you a great deal about this man. They met him in person, they were his collaborators, his correspondents (no, my half-dozen emails do not make me one of them), his inside intelligence sources from which he fed his many interests. Again, I am not one of those. All that I have to offer is the view of how his life affected mine — and it had an enormous effect, when I think about it; second only to Robert Heinlein in his ability to make me think; to test and find wanting the dogmatic assumptions about the world that remained from my early indoctrination sessions (inaccurately called “school”); to put together new thoughts that — sometimes — were in frank disagreement with his, but based on the world-as-is, not world-as-it-should-be.

So… At this far remove in time, I honestly cannot recall where I first encountered Jerry in his writings. It may have been the first Pournelle novel that I read (King David’s Spaceship). Perhaps it was his long-running monthly column in BYTE magazine, Computing at Chaos Manor. Or maybe the bimonthly Alternate View in Analog. It may even have been an editorial piece elsewhere, pushing the Strategic Defense Initiative during the Reagan Presidency. It really doesn’t matter — everywhere I looked back in those days (the early 1980s), there was Jerry — with one of the few demonstrably sane voices on the subject at hand. An advocate for many things, yes, whether it was a cool new piece of computer software or a way to stop threatening Russian schoolgirls with nuclear incineration as a “defense” policy. Always — always — though, with a detailed reasoning for his enthusiasm, and a frank acknowledgement of any flaws or difficulties that he could see — or that were brought to his attention.

Refreshing, particularly in those days when the Long March through the institutions was really gathering steam, and their monopoly over the dissemination of ideas was still intact. There were other voices; the suppression of wrong-think was nowhere near complete as yet — but there were few that were nearly as prolific as Jerry. I began to open magazines (whether BYTE or Analog or some other periodical where his name appeared on the cover) to his piece first. Without exception: it was almost certain to be the highlight of the issue. I began to buy his books. Then whatever books his name appeared on (which are legion; the There Will Be War anthologies, and the collaborations with Larry Niven are only the best known). I began to notice all of the places where other people obviously took ideas from his work, building, frequently poorly but occasionally with brilliance, their own edifices. (It amused me when I heard a mechanical engineer — a designer of irrigation equipment, of all things — use the phrase “…and then, on the gripping hand…” When asked, she had never heard of Jerry, or of the novel; it was just a phrase that apparently had become common in that community.)

I hate to admit it, but there were many years in which I did not pay quite so much attention. Raising a family, raising the money to raise the family, coping with a world that was sliding rapidly into the Crazy Years (yes, I know, that is exactly when I should have kept up with people like him). The Analog articles stopped as Jerry got involved in too many other things, even for him. BYTE eventually folded, too. Although the column continued on line, I had far too much to do dealing with staying just behind the bleeding edge of computer technology, not on the front lines.

Of course, I continued to buy Pournelle books, whenever they appeared, which was still often enough to fill many enjoyable hours of those years. Not as frequently as I would have liked, or as frequently as I think he would have liked — but failing health, including a brain tumor and a stroke, does tend to slow down even the greatest of souls.

I will have no new Pournelle to read now (except for whatever may be in the pipeline, or close enough that his almost equally talented children can finish them up). In recent years, though (three or four, it’s hard to say), I have been “rediscovering” Jerry. Not so much for his views of the larger world; those have actually not changed all that much (although, with a couple decades more of acquiring “wisdom” under my belt, I find many more places where he was righter than I thought as a “youth”). No, I have been studying his writing, particularly his characters, as I make the attempt to change my primary career. Not a single bit of cardboard in those, oh no. Every one fully realized. As just one example, if you are a writer, and you need to figure out how to write a complete sociopath with an unhealthy dollop of psychopathy (Jerry well knew the difference between those disorders — a B.S. in Psychology may have helped there?) — study carefully the character of Skilly from The Prince.

Egads. I’m up to some 1,300 words, far more than I have produced in weeks. There are still things bouncing around in my head that I could tell you about his work and how it affected me (such as the most masterful evisceration of the “Green” agenda ever written in fictional form — Fallen Angels, with Larry Niven and Michael Flynn — read it, it’s in the Baen Free Library, you have no excuse…). But, I need to end here, if this is to be edited, formatted, and published by tonight — and I know that I won’t be able to sleep until that is done. In the meantime, I’ll continue reading, with a few tears intervening between the eye and the page; and maybe an Irish coffee or two once this is up on the blog.

Rest in peace, Jerry Eugene Pournelle, PhD, August 7, 1933 — September 8, 2017. I still hear your voice in the valley. I promise that I will do my best to keep it alive, echoing, and — if at all possible — growing louder.


An addendum: Also without a doubt, many of those words mentioned above will be written in cyanide ink, and will require (virtual) acid resistant paper for their conveyance. The usual suspects (I’m looking at YOU, Vilists), to whom his ideology was anathema (classical liberalism is, of course, completely unacceptable to the would-be fascisti that have expropriated the word) will be reeling off all of the “ist” and “phobe” words that they can muster. To those, this is my response — two raised hands, and four fingers. Although I don’t know why I should bother with that much: you are barely the lice that dreamed of infesting the curly hair on this giant’s little toes.